Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter” tells the story of Hester Prynne, a Puritan woman caught in adultery and forced to wear the letter “A” on her chest to expose her sin and shame. Public shame for sin is politically incorrect these days and that’s a topic I’d like to explore in another post sometime. But today this story has me thinking about the other side of wearing a “scarlet letter”; the misuse of it as we define ourselves or others by something long after amends have been made and forgiveness granted.
The story of Hester Prynne reminds me of another story in scripture when a woman found in the act of adultery was brought before Jesus. Here’s how it played out as recorded in John 8:
The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman caught in adultery, and having set her in the center of the court, they said to Him, "Teacher, this woman has been caught in adultery, in the very act. "Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women; what then do You say?" They were saying this, testing Him, so that they might have grounds for accusing Him. But Jesus stooped down and with His finger wrote on the ground. But when they persisted in asking Him, He straightened up, and said to them, "He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her." Again He stooped down and wrote on the ground. When they heard it, they began to go out one by one, beginning with the older ones, and He was left alone, and the woman, where she was, in the center of the court. (v. 3-9)
I sometimes wonder if the woman was set up for the purpose of trapping Jesus. If Jesus said, "Let her go," then it would seem that he is breaking the Mosaic law. If he said, "Execute her for the crime of adultery," then Jesus would seem harsh and would break Roman law, because the Romans had taken away the right of Jews to officially execute people for religious offenses. But the fact is, she was guilty. Whether it was a set up or not, she was caught in the act of adultery and law was clear about the punishment. On a side note, I wonder what Jesus wrote in the ground…maybe the names of the accusers in the group who at one time or another had committed adultery with this same woman? Or perhaps he listed the sins they were guilty of themselves. We aren’t told but whatever it was it seems to have influenced the outcome.
Jesus never denied the woman sinned. He never denied the penalty the law required or the Pharisees’ right to carry out the judgment. What he did was force the accusers to acknowledge that they themselves were sinners. In Jewish law, witnesses to a capital offense were the ones who began the stoning. One commentator suggests that when Jesus said, “He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her,” he was really saying "all right, let’s execute her. But let’s do it right. One of the witnesses has to have a hand in her execution. So who among you is the one who witnessed this crime, but only brought to me the woman, not the man?" Perhaps, caught in the trap themselves, the men left rather than expose their own guilt.
If the story ended there it would still be a good story and a good lesson for us. But for me, the beauty is what followed:
Straightening up, Jesus said to her, "Woman, where are they? Did no one condemn you?" She said, "No one, Lord." And Jesus said, "I do not condemn you, either. Go. From now on sin no more." (v.10-11)
We aren’t told in this account who the woman was or what happened after that but I have to imagine that after such mercy and forgiveness that she changed her ways. I can also imagine that it wasn’t easy because like Hester Prynne, she was likely defined by her past even if she never committed adultery again. The accusers were likely still pointing at her, gossiping about her; still trying to put the focus on her so that their own sins would not be found out. She likely had her own moments of self-condemnation.
These stories happen to be about adultery but that isn’t the point. What is on my mind today is how we let any sin define us long after we’ve confessed and received forgiveness from Jesus. Sometimes we allow another to keep putting a scarlet letter on our chests without justification. Sometimes we wake up every morning and pin it on ourselves out of shame for something we did years ago or even something that was done to us that we have no reason to feel guilty about. Mostly though, we have an enemy, Satan, who continually whispers in our ear each letter that represents why we are guilty, beyond forgiveness, beyond the reach of mercy and grace of the Saviour, beyond redemption, beyond hope. His greatest weapon against us is accusation to cause doubt in what Jesus did on the cross.
What are some of the scarlet letters you carry around? I have my own collection that I drag out every now and then in my moments of doubt but then I choose to lay them at Jesus’ feet. In the shadow of the cross scarlet letters lose their power. Like the woman brought before him, if we just look through the filter of redemption we will find our accusers, or rather THE accuser, have left empty-handed with no evidence against us.
Romans 8:1 says there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. He promises forgiveness when we confess wrong doing (1 John 1:9) and not only forgiveness but that the sin is removed and forgotten (Psalm 103:12). Those are powerful promises that make the scarlet letters fall away as Jesus whispers in our ear, "neither do I condemn you."